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Why Study Art History? 

This question is a great doorway into the world of art history. Although at first glance the topic may seem irrelevant to most real-world situations today, there are many good reasons to study the history of art. Beyond the potential for personal or cultural enlightenment (which is a worthy goal on its own), the study of art requires the development of valuable and applicable skills that, once mastered, are transferrable to any discipline, field, or industry. Before exploring this idea further, however, watch how several art historians at a conference for museum professionals responded to this question. Watch or read their responses below and see which ones are most meaningful to you.
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Video Transcript
  1. I think it's important that people look at art because we live in a visual world. And understanding and looking at and thinking about the way images communicate in all kinds of ways is important to being alive today.
  2. If one has heightened visual acumen, which you get from spending time looking at things, whether it's looking at newspaper photos closely or looking at works in a museum or looking at your surroundings or birds more closely, that sort of attention to an environment makes you a better person. You are existing in a more aware, alert, present space.
  3. Sometimes people think that the only way of looking at art is going to museums and places like that. But maybe sometimes art is everywhere, in the street, if you look at architectural places, or everything. So you really don't need to go to a museum to see art. It could be anywhere, in a park or looking at buildings or going to a movie. So I think that's everyday life.
  4. It's all about noticing for me. It's all about trying to see beyond the first impression. People look at art. And they'd say, "I like this. I don't like this." And they move on. They have predetermined notions. But if you can just stop and take a breath and look a little deeper at something, you can really start to notice some kind of detail that you might have not noticed before. And I think that skill applies to so many things in life aside from art, about being able just to slow down and be aware of actually where you're standing. And just even stop talking, and just maybe open up your ears, for example. There's so much detail around that you can absorb if you really just take a moment, and just let it come in, and listen.

Transferrable Skills

Imagine traveling to a place you have never been before. What is the process that you use to arrive successfully? Perhaps you consult a map, road or street signs, or landmarks (like mountains or specific buildings). Perhaps you talk to someone who has made that same trip in the past to get some guidance and suggestions. In any case, the road you must navigate is highly visual. We are surrounded by visual stimuli that, as humans, we have learned to interpret in order to survive. Although we may not always call it art, the skills we use are basically the same as those we develop in examining art throughout history.

We must learn to do the following:

  1. Break down a complex image into its fundamental elements.
  2. Make decisions about which of those elements are more or less important.
  3. Draw and support a conclusion about what the combination of those elements means to us.

Once mastered, this ability strengthens our critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication, which are fundamental skills to successfully navigate the increasingly complex world. So, while on the surface this is a text that explores art history, it is really a text about developing valuable transferrable skills. As you explore this content, be sure not to overlook this important focus. Each of these artworks is worth your time and attention, but avoid losing perspective of what you are actually gaining by studying them. 

Sincere and Responsible CuriosityChallenging ContentThe Three-Tier Framework to Understanding ArtTier 1: ContentTier 2: ContextTier 3: Concept
Previous Citation(s)
Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Why art matters (why look at art?)," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed May 17, 2023,

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